“There is no one way to be a woman.” (R. Claire Snyder.) How the emergence of third wave feminism is challenging dominant feminist discourse on transgenderism.

The meaning of Feminism is constantly changing, fluctuating between negative and positive connotations, radical and liberal demands with pop stars such as Beyonce are claiming to be feminists, but what is interesting to me is to assess its relationship with a group who I had believed had always been mutual allies – people of transgender. According to Cressida Heyes in her article, ‘Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender’ “feminists of all stripes share the same political goal of weakening the grip of oppressive sex and gender dimorphisms in Western culture.” There has been different waves of feminism which have brought new ideas and new approaches, this is simply because different demands need to be met to gain gender equality as our society changes and evolves. Feminism should fundamentally represent every woman no matter their colour, age or social status but it has often ignored and failed to engage with transgenderism. Despite the fact that many transgender women are the daily victims of the most intense and public attempts to discipline gender, ways feminists have long criticized, “trans-liberation” and “feminism” have often been cast as opposing movements. This is not to say that feminism has completely ignored transgenderism, but as Eleanor MacDonald points out in her article, ‘Critical Identities: Rethinking Feminism Through Transgender Politics’ it has responded to the topic in mainly disquieting ways. Too frequently feminism’s relationship with transgender women is expressed as direct hostility and exclusion. The main example used when assessing this relationship is radical feminist Janice Raymond’s book The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male first published in 1979.  This book presented a dramatic opposition to transgenderism and controversially likened the transgender woman to a rapist. From this point onward there has been a deep ambivalence about the relationship of feminism to the question of gender fluidity. As MacDonald asserts, “gender is viewed as mutable and socially constructed while also contrarily presented as determined immutably by ones sex at birth.” Feminism holds the view that “gender is a patriarchal structure that women can and must defeat or transcend”, yet radical feminism refuses to view transgender women as women. To them transgenderism is a medical or psychiatric problem, a private concern and not one of feminism. ‘Transgender’ is an “umbrella term” which encompasses a whole range of people who do not seek medical alignment surgery but just do not associate with their assigned gender. Transgender people offer a unique perspective on what it is to be a woman and can help contribute an understanding of the gender experience that feminism must not ignore. The emergence of Post- Modern Feminist Theory in the 1990s, also called Third Wave Feminism, moved beyond radical and liberal feminist thought and began to embrace transgenderism and the expression of diversity amongst women. In her article, ‘What is Third Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay’, R. Claire Snyder depicts how the movement broke down the binary dualism of western society and highlighted the intersectionality of feminism. As the concept of transgenderism is growing and achieving publicity in the media, especially within television series such as Laverne Cox in ‘Orange is the New Black‘ , the experiences of transgender women need to be taken seriously by feminism so they can move forward and represent the rights of all women.

The first concept to understand when discussing  transgendersim is what gender actually means. According to MacDonald, sex and gender are both complex terms, with external genitalia the primary factor in attributing either the male or female sex and gender is then expected to cohere with the sex. But gender is in fact made up of many rich and complex variables including; gender assignment at birth, social roles, social status, employment, social relations, behavior, language, clothing and mannerisms. Ultimately, ones gender is not one’s own decision it is assigned at birth, yet it is the right of the individual to express gender in whatever they want. Gender is fluid and a socially structured concept, yet many, including radical feminists, believe that one simply is essentially either male or female. As Deborah M. Withers suggests in her article, ‘Transgender and Feminist Alliances in Contemporary U.K Feminist Politics’, gender is always transitioning, what it means to be male or female is constantly changing and therefore it is not a fixed state. Just because one matches their biological sex with their subconscious sex does not make them any more ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ than people who don’t. It is Heyes who states that gender should be understood as a “property of the individual” rather than their relations. It is the right of individuals to express their gender as they choose or to engage in gender free play. Also present in the article is the arguments of Post-Structuralist writers such as transgender Leslie Fienberg, who state that “people of all sexes have the right to explore femininity, masculinity and anything in between, the ideas of what a ‘real’ woman or man should be straightjacket the freedom of individual self-expression.” However, it is important to recognize the factors that disallow this expression and shape the way many people think about gender. In her article Heyes states the cultural intolerance and disgust directed at gender ‘deviance’ which supports the “privilege of white bourgeois male masculinity and the patriarchal social structures.” Gender expression is not a simple aesthetic choice, there are serious political issues that need to be answered before gender is viewed as fluid. Feminism has had trouble coming to terms with the fluidity of gender and what it takes to be a woman; as the boundaries of gender expand there is greater freedom for people to classify themselves as a woman, it is a lot easier for people to alter their appearance and change their lifestyles. For many feminists, feminism belongs to the female biological sex but in a contemporary society with transgender women facing serious backlash and inequality feminism can not afford to ignore these issues.

The second wave of feminism in the 1970s was the most controversial and influential form of feminism that still has a foothold in feminist agendas today. The radical feminists of this era demanded a cultural change that “rejected all male ideas and concepts” and according to Heyes this brand of feminism required only one subject; the woman identified woman. As stated in Michelle Goldberg’s article for the New Yorker, the conflict between feminism and transgenderism became apparent  nearly forty years ago at the height of the second wave movement at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, in Los Angeles in 1973. The keynote speaker, Robin Morgan, refused to call transsexual singer, Beth Elliot, a ‘she’ because after;

 “thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled, and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.”

Whilst this statement presented the hostility towards transgenderism by femininism, the most influential statement on transgenderism in this era was Janice Raymond’The Transsexual Empire in which she likens the transsexual women to a rapist – “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real feminine form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” In Heyes’ article she states that the book was fundamentally an attack on the patriarchal medical and psychiatric establishment, claiming that transsexuals had a mental disorder and were “artifacts of a patriarchal medical practices” that use women’s bodies. Therefore Raymond treats transgendered women not as choosing their transition, but as it having it inflicted upon them as patriarchy’s way of destroying women who challenge femininity. Heyes describes how Raymond believed that transgenderism was a plot by men to infiltrate the women’s movement. The book as a whole drew a “lurid picture of transsexual women as parodies of femininity” and male invaders of women’s space. Again in Heyes’ article she portrays how Raymond and other radical feminists of the time rejected the notion of a female brain and that membership to womanhood is determined by chromosomes with gender being a biological concept. The main argument held by these feminists was that anyone born a man retains male privilege in society, even if he chooses to live as a woman he has a choice and therefore can never fully understand what it is like to be a woman. This is a debate that remains in contemporary discussion about gender, in Wither’s article she writes that some feminists are still arguing that transgender women never lose male privilege at all, male socialization during childhood and adolescence is unavoidable and therefore would constitute as a significant difference between females assigned at birth. Whilst this argument completely ignores the complex issues faced by transgender women, the dramatic feminist opposition was widely followed by far more hostile opinions that transgender women should not exist at all. In Raewyn Connell’s article he states that in a post-patriarchal world, for these radical feminists, transgenderism could not be imagined.  In 1994, Raymond issued a new introduction to her book which she again states that membership to feminism and womanhood depends on those with a shared female history. Feminist writers such as Sheila Jeffery and Germaine Greer have continued to reinforce such transphobic views into the 2000s proving that this perspective still has strong influence over feminist agendas. In this view of radical feminism, as said by Goldberg in the New Yorker, “gender is less an identity than a caste system.” It seems that for many “re-conceptualizing how we think about who is a man and who  is a woman is in some ways a deeper challenge to people’s sense of the way the world works” therefore find it hard to accept gender fluidity and transgenderism.

The elasticity of the term transgender has forced contemporary society to rethink what sex and gender really mean. What is determinative is not people’s chromosomes or their genitals or their upbringing but how they see themselves. Until very recently Heyes states that the public transsexual has been manipulated as a talk show gimmick, a sexual fetish or a tell-all sensationalist. However Heyes interestingly points out that in a contemporary society it is not unusual for a person to change their appearance and dramatically change their bodies for reasons also connected to gender identity, for example body builders, dieters, cosmetic surgery candidates all alter their bodies to fit how they want to feel, therefore these people are hardly different to those who live a transgender life.  Despite the hostility many transgender women face they are actually growing in recognition, for example the recent Time cover featuring transgender actress Laverne Cox with the title ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’ has brought trans-liberation to the forefront of Western societies attention.

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, May 2014

With the growing visibility of the transgender movement, it is baffling that it has not shared its platform with feminism as both have to build their lives in the face of gender inequalities and insecurities.

In 1990 post-modern feminist Judith Butler published her book Gender Trouble. She stated the assumption of a natural basis for women’s identity is non-existent. Connell states how her work was strikingly more positive than previous radical feminist writing on transgenderism and “helped launch a wave of post structuralist and queer feminist writing” about transsexuality.

Judith Butler taking about the fluidity of gender

The main change in this switch of feminist perspective was the book The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto by Sandy Stone in 1991. Stone is a transsexual woman who was specifically attacked by Raymond, her essay describes transgender women as a ‘genre’ and claims that they have the potential to disrupt and break down gender categories. Connell argues that from this point onward a huge “paradigmatic shift” occurred where transgender has become a widely used term within feminist literature stating the significance of gender plurality and in which transgender women are treated with respect. Snyder labels this shift ‘Third-Wave Feminism’ which is a response to the collapse of the category of ‘womanhood’ and the theoretical problems that came with the second-wave. This form of feminism focuses on personal narratives that illustrate an intersectional version of feminism; with Snyder stating that “feminism is something individual to each feminist.” Snyder highlights how the challenges women face have changed since the 1970s, today young women face a world colonized by the mass media therefore third-wave feminism focuses on; pop culture, interacting with men as equals, actively playing with femininity and reclaiming terms such as “bitch” “cunt” and “slut”. Bitch magazine is a great example of third-wave feminism as it critically questions messages the mass media sends surrounding issues of gender. Diversity is a central feature and third-wave feminism rightly rejects the universalist claim that all women share a set of common experiences, after all the core of feminism is the fact that “the personal is the political.” According to Snyder, when it comes to gender identity third-wave feminist ideas “embrace the notions of contradiction, multiplicity and ambiguity engaging with the fluid nature of gender and sexual identity.” There is no unified category of women and this non-essentialist approach explicitly questions the gender binary of male or female, therefore transgenderism fits much more fully into third-wave understandings of gender. Transgender women are severely oppressed, Connell’s article highlights how they find themselves having to deal with discrimination in social institutions ranging from the patriarchal state, the economy, the medical profession to the family. For many years transgenderism has been referred to as a disease or mental illness and therefore transgender women are viewed to lack agency and opinions are irrelevant. Connell argues that this is structured by the inequalities of the gender order and transgender women are subsequently punished for denying their patriarchal privilege. He states that these women have to “make their way through a gendered social landscape” in which they do not fit into the restrictive gender norms. Due to this they are too frequently victims of violence and many suffer from depression. This discrimination provides key evidence for third-wave feminism about how gender categories are sustained in everyday practices of social interactions and institutions. Connell  gives the example of how transgender women are often denied medical treatment by the establishment itself or simply can not afford treatment and have no personal support. Finding housing, dealing with workplace discrimination and gaining social recognition are also just some of the obstacles transgender women face in their lives. What I found most shocking is how in her article for Bitch magazine, Tina Vasquez states that in most states it is legal to fire someone for being transgender and that transgender people can not serve in the military. But as Connell argues, it is important to point out that the process is not the same for transgender women and transgender men. Transgender women are “shedding the patriarchal reward that accrues to men as a group in labor markets, finance markets, family status and professional authority.” By denying this privilege Connell shows that there is also an economic penalty as transgender women lose on average nearly a third of their income. It is also crucial to recognize the intersectionality within transgender women as in her article Vasquez states that “transphobia is lot more intense when it comes to transegender women of colour and low social status”, with them being twice as likely to to be victims of violence and suicide. The white privilege of second-wave feminism has allowed intersectionality to be ignored and the issues of minority women have been pushed aside.

Report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality

Because transgender women’s lives are shaped by the resistance of gender, there is a common ground with feminism. Much of what transgender women need is already contained in feminist agendas; equality in education, equal employment conditions and wages, prevention of gender based violence and resistance to sexist culture. The best guarantor of justice for transgender women is a gender equal society.

With the queer community demanding that the silencing of transgender women be addressed and third-wave feminism challenging the previous dominant discourse held by the second-wave feminist movement that transgender women, society is finally changing its perceptions. With new legislation in the United States lifting previous exclusions and preventing discrimination in the workplace, the idea that transgender women are just as legitimate as a woman born of female sex is becoming the norm. Even more crucially the media is changing how it represents transgender women by not just focusing on transition stories but allowing transgender people to take center stage as themselves. Historically television has not been a welcoming place for transgenderism, with transgender women being portrayed as jokes in sitcoms. But with the breakthrough success of Laverne Cox and the new series Transparent about a father aligning her body with her female gender identity, are helping to improve the lives of a long misunderstood minority. It is crucial that feminism incorporates the ideas and issues of transgenderism. Transphobia fundamentally undermines the principles of feminism itself and by including transgender on their platform the feminist message is enriched. Feminism has a lot to make up to the transgender community for years of exclusion, there are still many issues to tackle. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that transgender women still live in a world largely built on a fixed definition of gender. In many places transgender women are unwelcome in female bathrooms, which is a constant reminder that they don’t belong. Third-wave feminists have to deconstruct these gender-binaries and demand gender equality for all. By creating a diverse arena where personal experiences can be heard it becomes clear that there is more than one way to be a woman.















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